The Strangers

The Strangers

*1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"Two lovers entwined pass me by, and heaven knows I'm miserable now," goes the song, and with so many young couples being brutalised in the movies lately, one begins to wonder if Morrissey has finally cracked and gone on a killing spree. If the slasher films of the Eighties were largely about resentment of popular teenage girls who wouldn't condescend to go to bed with a misfit, this decade's offerings seem to be about resentment of people settling down and getting mortgages together. But as with so many of their ilk, the couple in this film are experiencing tough times in their relationship. James (Scott Speedman) is head over heels in love with Kristen (Liv Tyler), but she's not ready to commit. It'll take a crisis to remind her of her true feelings for him - and by then, of course, it may be too late.

The film opens with an announcement that the events it contains are based on a true story, adding the curious clause that exactly what happened has never been determined. This seems to be an excuse for writer/director Bryan Bertino to develop his story in a completely haphazard way, with no attempt at coherency or resolution.

Copy picture

James and Kristen are staying alone in his dad's house after a family party. Some strangers come round and decide to terrorise them, apparently just for the sake of it. Now sure, that sort of thing does happen, but Michael Haneke did it much better in his original Funny Games. Where Haneke created an atmosphere thick with tension, Bertino creates an atmosphere thick like soup. Where Haneke inspired the viewer to think carefully about human psychology, Bertino introduces a parade of cardboard characters whose psychological reflexes extend only to squealing when something goes bang.

Things go bang a lot. Here the crudity of the attackers' methods mirrors that of the film's plot. Whenever a scare is needed, someone tries to break down a door or fires a gun, with much the same overwrought sound effect. There are also stuck records, heavy breathing and mysterious fingers tapping on piano keys - every soundtrack cliche you could want. And that's before we get to the music, which has to be in the running for Worst Soundtrack 2008. Even before the titles roll it's doing its best to induce a migraine, as if trying to substitute the inducement of physical distress for the emotional response it is unable to provoke. It signposts every important bit of action, destroying the tension it affects to build. It makes the film not just poor but actually unpleasant.

If you think I'm just whining because I don't like torture porn, I've got bad news for you: this film will let you down on that front, too. Despite setting itself up with a premise dependent on horror, it cuts away every time something actually gruesome is about to happen. Instead we get shots of trees and fields. Doubtless somebody thought this was witty and meaningful, but it detracts from the only hook the film really has.

Despite all this, Scott Speedman makes a bold (though doomed) attempt at creating a character. Liv Tyler, however, is woefully miscast and does nothing but whimper. What she's doing in a film like this is anybody's guess. She plays the worst type of heroine, spending most of the film trailing around after her man and expecting him to do everything for her. It's hard to care about her fate.

Why the extra half star? There's some really good lighting work on display here. Not artistic, but technically impressive. So, um, go and see it if you're interested in lighting. Otherwise I recommend balancing lots of old crockery in a tower and then sitting down with your back to it, humming loudly. The effect of waiting for something to go bang will give you much the same pleasure without encouraging anyone to make a film like this again.

Reviewed on: 26 Aug 2008
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A young couple are terrorised by a group of masked home invaders.

Director: Bryan Bertino

Writer: Bryan Bertino

Starring: Alex Fisher, Peter Clayton-Luce, Scott Speedman, Liv Tyler, Gemma Ward, Kip Weeks, Laura Margolis, Glenn Howerton

Year: 2008

Runtime: 85 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US

Festivals:

Frightfest 2008

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If you like this, try:

Funny Games
Timber Falls
Vacancy